documentary recommendation–joan didion: the center will not hold

Quite a few students asked me about watching this 2017 Netflix documentary on Joan Didion. One of my favorite writers and I enjoyed the film. Fascinating to see personal interviews as well as to hear excerpts of some of her iconic essays.

documentary recommendation: trudell

One of my favorite writers, activists and speakers.

John Trudell: It has been, literally, the most blood thirsty, brutalizing system ever imposed on this planet. That is not civilization. That’s the great lie – is that it represents civilization. That’s the great lie. Or if it does represent civilization, and that’s truly what civilization is, then the great lie is that civilization is good for us.

little mocos a novel in stories–book soundtrack–parts 1 and 2

Put together a quick listing of song titles I think work with each chapter of my book. Saw a few other writers I admire do this and so I thought I would try. More and more I like the idea of a movie-style book soundtrack. And I am finding this a fascinating exercise. Many of these titles are songs I listened to while drafting and revising and many I found recently as many of the characters and chapters refer to films and or songs in dialogue.

Ch 1 Animales has a very strong Los Lobos influence because I admire them so much. This is a bluegrass tribute I find beautiful:

Ch 2 Relles’ Boy and Ch 3 Little Mocos were both heavily influenced by Good Morning Azlan. I listened to this album nearly consistently for weeks as I drafted and re-drafted these early chapters.

Ch 4 Cornbread is all about the notorious criminal though I chose a upbeat track–maybe because I have so much sympathy or empathy with his character. Also the narrator has so much joy and love in learning about the man. Also the track is very quick and the chapter was meant to be this way–quick and elliptical–bopping from sad and funny story to sad and funny story.

Ch 5 Birthdays introduces the old folks or the grandparent characters back in their day–someone mentions Wheel of Fortune at the birthday–las dias–and the band I imagine would play this during the festivities. Also the family at the party sing together as I remember the old folks doing and I imagine them singing “de colores”:

Ch 6 Bear and Peaches is about a husband and wife feuding so the Hank Williams track is something the old folks might’ve listened to on the radio. I was actually amazed how popular Hank Williams was with the old folks:

Ch 8 Dogtrack is about the uncle who is a bad influence on his crew of boys and so I like that Emeterio might be listening to Al Hurricane on the truckito radio traveling out to the dog track:

Ch 7 and and Ch 9 are war stories essentially and the boys ask if the experience were similar to The Longest Day. This is a film I remember watching as a kid and thinking this was what military service was though the stories in the book contrast the film.

Ch 10 belongs to the crew of boys and so the child version of Las Mananitas seemed appropriate:

Ch 11 follows Emeterio’s downfall and he mentions drinking and partying as the fruits of his labor:

Ch 12 This feud between brothers ends with Emeterio going to jail and the other Santiago left alone to deal with family and bills. It also ends with a street fight and so this War track seemed appropriate.

inside llewyn davis and the mobius strip narrative

inside_llewyn_davis_posterTeaching a film as lit class this term and spending some time this week closely studying Joel and Ethan Coen’s pre-Bob Dylan period film Inside Llewyn Davis. I am particularly interested in the themes of crisis and purposeleness. I also like the feel that the narrative is a mobius strip trapping the main character.

I am seeing many similarities with The Big Lebowski–another Coen brothers film I admire–in the themes of authenticity and honesty–also the theme of abiding or enduring. I also like the idea of the character who is not exactly aware of the depth of the crisis though I do feel Llewyn Davis comes to an understanding and awareness of sorts. I also love the motif in the incredible journey of the lost cat.

podcast recommendation: code switch–race and identity, remixed

Highway driving this summer and enjoying the fairly new Code Switch podcast. I also enjoy the written articles posted on NPR Code Switch site. Primarily enjoying the article on digital divides between Latino and Anglos.

podcast recommendation: this american life episode 562–the problem we all live with


Episode 562 This American Life–The Problem We All Live With

I’ve lived and taught in the Midwest for ten years now and have yet to fully understand the place and the people. After the Michael Brown shooting and the Ferguson riots, I found this incredible episode of This American Life on Michael Brown’s school district–the worst district in the state of Missouri according to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Makes me think more powerfully on the intersection of poverty, diversity and classrooms here in the Midwest.

PS: I would also recommend the documentary Spanish Lake I recently watched on Netflix on the topic of neighborhood integration in Missouri.

documentary recommendation: the untold history of the united states

oliverstoneuntoldhistorPeter J. Kuznick’s research translates well to this Oliver Stone directed series of hour-long documentaries. I found myself admiring the post-structuralism historical mode as well as the well constructed mix of photographs, film footage and news reels.

last tuesday at the movies

Went to the movies last week. I should’ve been grading or obsessing over the part time instructor evaluations I was supposed to be writing up. But I went to the movies instead. Don’t always spend time during the week taking time to watch movies but I did. And I don’t regret it. I wish I could go to the movies every Tuesday. Anyway D and I saw Enough Said directed by Nicole Holofcener.


Long story short, the plot is driven by a coincidence. And this idea was seen as a failure from D’s point of view. I saw it as a strength because I heard an episode of This American Life called No Coincidence, No Story! Now that is not the only thing that drives the film’s narrative. I think the movie is driven by the intricacies of relationships and protocol around new relationships–the human truths of relationships and also the ending of relationships. The idea that relationships are about finding and understanding mundane eccentricities in newfound partners.

Apparently “No coincidence, no story” is a Chinese expression. From This American Life: “Sometimes the best way to appreciate a coincidence is to look past all the rational reasons it might have happened.”

This is an interesting thought or principle regarding narratology. Shit happens in life and in stories. I think this is a pretty good lesson for my creative writing students who are always struggling to find that thing or “it” that will drive the story.

nelson algren documentary

ManWithTheGoldenArmHappen to be reading through The Man With the Golden Arm this summer. Now news of Algren documentary. I’m looking forward to it.

quick thoughts on kubrick and the unsayable

Lately I’ve been obsessed with Stanley Kubrick films. I mention The Shining in class quite often to my students and how it represents an incredible example of psychological dread built into a narrative. A slow and constant ratcheting of tension. (I find myself mentioning films in general quite a bit in creative writing regarding matters of narratology.) And some of my students hate the differences in the film from the Stephen King novel. They say the film is long, slow and boring. Yet like Rob Ager  on his website or in his YouTube film analyses I have to agree that the film is superior and generates a “subliminal onslaught” creating such a tension and tone of fear that goes beyond the novel.

And I do think the film scarier than attacking hedges as in the novel and jump scares built into nearly every popular horror film lately. Especially the Paranormal Activity films. The craft and the mysteries at the center of Kubrick’s film though drive my multiple viewings.

I also like that the story is about a writer trying to get ideas down and ultimately unravelling.

A few summers back I sat in Mary Gaitskill’s workshop while she lectured on this feeling or mood that comes from an irrational level through a text—the feeling or the tone. She stated this was beyond literal interpretation; it was the soul of the book. In the story it is what cannot be manifested in life. It’s all created by phrase and tone. She kept referring to it as the soul or the unseen. The idea is to use something not important to take yourself and reader somewhere very deep. Language creating images and the subliminal to radically enhance what we interpret. At her fiction reading  one night she read from her story “The Other Place” and demonstrated how every detail of the writing and language can help to slowly build that sense of dread. That story is about a father and son and we never are literally told what “the other place” means for the narrator as character but we sense and we infer. I remember her completely committed to the character’s voice and mannerisms. The voice and language created the soul or guts of the writing.

Kubrick utilizes subtle symbols and images to build meaning in a similar way. The music is intimidating and the pacing slow and steady. Important scenes are cryptic and become ambiguous and meaning is never directly stated as in the events of Room 237. The room becomes a central component of the events of the story. The room exists as the unsayable. The secret room existing at the center of the film and crucial to the answer behind Jack Torrance’s madness and kept hidden from his family–perhaps repressed by his family. The suggestion of child abuse and effects of alcoholism never directly shown but alluded to and left to seep through the plotline and symbology.

Reminds me of Donald Hall’s essay The Unsayable Said and his metaphor of the secret room existing at the center of each poem that the artist is trying to create. The literal and subliminal brought impossibly together he writes. Hall explains, “the poetry adds the secret (unsayable) room of feeling and tone to the sayable story.”

To further my study of the film I’m eagerly awaiting the documentary Room 237 directed by Rodney Ascher. The trailer states that the documentary is filled with interviews of thinkers and writers discussing Kubrick’s hidden meanings. Everything from moon landing conspiracies to pedophilia I imagine. (Jay Weidner’s interpretations which I’ve read before I imagine might be the oddest.) I’m interested in hearing the many other differing interpretations and evidence as to what has made this film so debated nearly thirty years later.

quick note on the three burials of melquiades estrada

Had some time to watch The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada this weekend. I’ve been meaning to watch more Latino themed films for the blog. I admired Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay which I read won best of at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. I enjoyed the fractured sense of time and how we see the same event from several points of view and out of sequence. The same fractured sense of time he brought to the 21 Grams screenplay and also Babel. A couple of other films I’ve watched and admired.

More so than the other films written by Arriaga I admired the representation of Mexico and the Mexican people. The film presented Melquiades as well as other Mexican workers as hard-working and human. Also presented them as complex. A representation unfortunately difficult to find in film. I also admired the character of Norton the Border Patrol Agent and how he was forced to experience something similar to an immigrant’s travels across the border. As in Babel we see characters forced to experience something outside of their social class or outside of their particular bias. We’re immersed in characters as their consciousness expands. I also admired Tommy Lee Jones’ direction even though he’s not known for direction. I’d like to write more on this film and more on Arriaga’s other scripts as I have the time.

latino films

Just made a list of Latino-themed/focused films I’d like to re-watch and maybe write up a quick review for in the next few months. I’m going to keep adding to this list as I re-watch in spare time but here are a few of the films I’m thinking on:

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Mi Familia Milagro Beanfield War Frida
 Stand and Deliver Manito The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez Girlfight
El Norte La Mission Bread and Roses Selena
 American Me Real Women Have Curves A Day without a Mexican Undefeated
Walkout Zoot Suit  La Bamba  El Cantante

jacqueline dougan jackson interview

Jacqueline “Jackie” Dougan Jackson is the author of over a dozen books, including three about the family dairy farm in Wisconsin that her grandfather began at the turn of the 20th century. The Round Barn, volume one, is at the culmination of years of dedicated collection, research, and synthesis using family materials, historical sources, and cultural artifacts. In this interview, taped in Jackie’s home in Springfield, Illinois, the author discusses the origins of the book and history of the Dougan farm, the organizational strategies for each volume, and her decision to self-publish. Part two will continue the conversation about The Round Barn books and also delve into Jackie’s long career as novelist, poet, professor, and mentor to dozens of writers.

mary gaitskill lecture notes

A few weeks back I typed up some notes from Amy Hempel’s workshop I attended. I found my notes on Mary Gaitskill’s portion of the workshop and finally had the chance to type them up.

I remember she was intense but I got some good notes down on how workshops can be “imperfect” she lectured but also can be energizing. She began by saying workshops can be like twelve heads or dreams barging into your dream. I like the idea of a fictive space as a dream. And I guess this analogy or metaphor appropriate since she also lectured on the writings “inner quality” as she called it. The subtle and strange feeling that exists beneath plot, character and theme. This quality makes the best writing “live or die” she stated. She called it the guts and she called it the soul.

One of her examples: “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor. And as I would find later I believe her work is a strong example of this idea.

She went on to lecture this feeling or mood came from the irrational level—the feeling or the tone coming from language. She stated this was beyond psychology—the soul of the book. In the story it is what cannot be manifested in life. It’s all created by phrase and tone. She kept referring to it as the soul or the unseen. The idea is to use something not important to take yourself and reader somewhere very deep. Language creating images and the subliminal to radically enhance what we see.

All this made me think of Tracy Daugherty and the idea that language and phrasing creates the skin of a character. It made me think of Stanley Kubrick movies where the most minor or insignificant detail or thread at the right place and time can enhance the atmosphere or feel of a piece of writing.

Found this clip of Gaitskill’s reading–beginning around 37 minutes in. I think she gives a great example of the ideas she lectured on: